Slow Start: History Not on Boston Red Sox' Side
There wasn’t a dry eye among New York Yankee fans last week as they shed big, wet crocodile tears of feigned sympathy when the highly favored Boston Red Sox lost their first three games of the season.
Those Bean Town fellas were picked by just about everyone to win the American League East and then take the AL pennant. Many of these “experts” said Boston should win the 2011 World Series.
Sure, it is only April and there is a long way to go. But the Red Sox’ chances slipped from very good to very slim while they were deep in the heart of Texas last weekend. Then their World Series chances slipped to just about zero when they lost their next three games at Cleveland for the team’s worst start since 1945 when Boston lost its first eight games.
Boston finished seventh in the eight-team AL that season as World War II was ending. The 1945 lineup consisted of players such as Bob Johnson in left field, Leon Culberson in center field, Eddie Lake at shortstop and Skeeter Newsome at second base while Ted Williams, Dom DiMaggio, Johnny Pesky and Bobby Doerr were still in military service.
History tells us that 165 times from 1903 through 2010 a Major League Baseball team has started the season by losing its first three games and then won its fourth game. The super statisticians at the Elias Sports Bureau in New York City tell us that only four of those teams recovered to win the year’s World Series. The most recent of these slow starters/fast finishers were the 1998 Yankees.
When this year’s Red Sox fell to 0-6 at Cleveland, Boston fans must have felt the “Curse of the Bambino” had descended on their heroes once again. According to the Elias Bureau, no MLB team has started a season by losing its first four games and gone on to win that year’s World Series. Losing the first six games puts a WS aspiring team in nowheresville.
The 1985 St. Louis Cardinals are the only MLB team to lose its first four games of the season and reach the WS. Those Cards lost the series in seven games to the Kansas City Royals. No team starting 0-5 or worse has reached the WS.
As Boston’s number got to 0-6 and counting, the crocodile tears on Yankee fans’ faces turned to tears of joy while the Yanks prepared to play Boston in a weekend series that ends today at Fenway Park.
Mercifully for the Red Sox and their fans, the losing streak ended Friday afternoon in the home opener at Fenway when the Sox whipped those detested boys from the Bronx, 9-6. But Boston was still on the wrong side of history.
Because the MLB regular season spans six months plus a day this year with that silly March 31 start, good teams are expected to right themselves and possibly make a run for the playoffs. After all, the best teams, including pennant winners, sometimes have slumps of three, four and even five-game losing streaks during a season.
But strangely enough, those short but telling losing streaks at the outset can dig a very deep hole for the best of teams. All too often these teams do not extricate themselves after failing to break quickly from the gate.
It was 100 years ago that Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics lost their first three games of 1911 to the New York Highlanders (later renamed Yankees) and then won their fourth game.
Those Athletics, with Eddie Collins at second base and Frank (Home Run) Baker at third plus Eddie Plank and Chief Bender pitching, recovered from that poor start to win 101 games. Then they beat Manager John McGraw’s New York Giants, 4 games to 2, in the World Series.
Just three years later, another team that started 0-3, made one of the most famous recoveries in MLB history. This was “the other Boston team”, the one that came to be known as “The Miracle Braves.”
Not only did the 1914 Boston Braves open their season by losing two games to the Brooklyn Dodgers and one to the Philadelphia Phillies before winning a game, they were dead last in the eight-team National League on July 18 when they were five games beyond the halfway mark of the season. The Braves were 11 games behind the first place New York Giants on that date before starting the “miracle” comeback.
Led by Rabbit Maranville at shortstop and Johnny Evers at second base, the Braves took the NL pennant with 94 victories and then swept those same Philadelphia Athletics in the 1914 World Series, 4-0.
It was not until 59 years later that the Oakland A’s became the third team to open a campaign with three defeats before winning and then go on to take the 1973 World Series. Like the “Miracle Braves,” Oakland won 94 games and then, in their second straight seven-game World Series, the A’s beat the New York Mets, 4 games to 3.
Those Oakland A’s were not some miracle team or surprise in MLB. Led by the slugging of Reggie Jackson and the pitching of Rollie Fingers, Catfish Hunter and Vida Blue, these A’s won three consecutive World Series, beating the Cincinnati Reds in 1972, New York Mets in 1973 and the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1974.
Another quarter century went by before the Yankees became the fourth team to open 0-3 and then bounce back with a vengeance to win the 1998 World Series. This was Manager Joe Torre’s second of four WS championships with the Yankees and the first of three titles in a row for the Yanks.
Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera and Jorge Posada were in their fourth season as Yankee teammates in 1998. They are currently in their 17th Yankee season together. No other trio of MLB players has been together on the same team for this long.
These three were part of the driving force that turned that rather poor 1998 opening completely around as the Yanks won their fourth game that season, lost their fifth and then went on a tear by winning eight in a row and 24 of their next 26 games. When it was all over the Yanks had won a team regular season record of 114 games.
The Bronx Bombers were 11-2 in the 1998 post-season play, finishing it off with a 4-0 sweep of the San Diego Padres in the WS. This is by far the best season-long performance by any of those teams that stumbled out of the starting gate.
The Red Sox are not the only ones who have tripped all over themselves at the start of the current season. Another member of the AL East, the Tampa Bay Rays, also lost their first six games for the worst start in that team’s short history.
Unlike the Red Sox, the Rays were not expected to do too well this season. The biggest AL East surprise on the plus side is the Baltimore Orioles, who won their first five games before losing.
Could it be that the 2011 AL East, which has been considered the strongest division in MLB for some years now, is no longer so powerful? Led by the Yankees, who have made it to four World Series from 2000 through 2010, the AL East has had seven WS appearances and four champions in those 11 seasons. That is three more appearances and two more champions than any other MLB divisions.
The horrendous start by the favored Red Sox plus the questionable starting pitching staff of the Yankees and the depleted Tampa Bay Rays takes much of the shine off the AL East. Baltimore is not going to continue winning at its opening pace and the Toronto Blue Jays don’t look truly threatening despite a good start.
After the Red Sox left town, the Texas Rangers kept winning to go 6-0 for a bang up opening scene. And remember, those Rangers of the AL West are the defending AL pennant winners.
If past performances offer any signs of things to come this season, Red Sox fans can already do what Brooklyn Dodger fans used to do — “Wait ‘til next year.”
Gordon White served 43 years as a sports reporter for The New York Times. His e-mail is email@example.com.
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